Junior infants ‘over-prepared’ in numeracy and literacy when starting school, study finds

Teachers express concerns and say social, emotional and self-management skills are more important at this stage

Teachers are concerned that some children starting junior infants are “over-prepared” in academic skills such as numeracy and literacy, a major study has found.

Instead, they say social, emotional and self-management skills – such as being able to put on a coat, make friends and regulate emotions – are more important targets at this age.

The findings are contained in the latest Children’s School Lives study, which is following 4,000 children across 189 schools to learn about their experiences.

The research, which focuses on the transition from preschool to primary, was carried out by UCD’s school of education on behalf of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).


The study says there are signs of a “disconnect” between parents and teachers over expectations around learning at preschool and primary level.

While many parents and children tend to see “big school” as a place of work rather than play, teachers emphasise social and emotional skills and the importance of play-based learning.

“You have children now who are two years in a preschool setting, so they’re coming into junior infants and a lot of what’s been done in the current junior infant class has already been done in the preschool, so there’s complete overlap,” one school principal told the study.

A teacher told researchers: “I think what would help, if they could all come in, know how to stack a chair, put on their coat, put away their lunch box. You’d be surprised the amount that come in not knowing that ... I’m not asking any child to be able to come in and read, do sounds. That’s all done in school and it should be done there.”

One of the study’s key conclusions is the need to strengthen the collaboration and co-operation happening between preschools and primary schools in supporting children’s transitions.

In addition, it points to the need for play-based learning to be enhanced at primary schools, as well as emphasising the need for social and emotional learning to be a more important target.

These skills are key to a positive move from preschool and primary. A smooth transition is considered important for all children, but especially those at risk through poverty, social isolation or specific learning needs.

Overall, the study found that children were generally very positive, saying they liked going to school, liked their teacher and had made friends in class.

Dr Seaneen Sloan, a lead researcher on the study at UCD’s school of education. said the findings emphasise the importance of preschool experiences in supporting children’s early learning and development and providing a firm foundation for primary school.

“Our findings demonstrate parents’ appreciation of the preschool services available in Ireland and the funding provided for this through the ECCE [Early Childhood Care and Education] programme,” she said.

Prof Dympna Devine, principal investigator, added that the findings were testament to the strategic importance of continued State investment in early childhood education as a public good.

“Such investment provides immediate support to families in a crucial period of child development, while building capacity longer term in our education system, and society, through targeted investment at a key transition point in children’s lives. Continued value is to be gained from building stronger links between the early childhood education and primary school sectors,” she said.

Arlene Forster, NCCA chief executive, said relationships and information-sharing between preschools and primary schools were key to helping children get off the best possible start at primary level, and emphasised the need for the two professions to meet and work together to support young children.

The latest Children’s School Lives study – the fourth to date – is based on findings gathering during 2019 and 2020.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent